Before I say anything else, I must say: if normal nuns were seriously secretly trained as deadly assassins, I’d have way more interest in religion. Not that I’m saying religion is bad; it’s just that if it also involved training to kill all the evil men in the world who abuse women, well it would definitely be a lot more interesting! What a crazy, amazing book idea!
Seriously, I don’t know why I let the gigantic size of the book delay my enjoyment. I’m the girl who was first in line at Harry Potter midnight releases. I would then not go to sleep till the book was finished. I may or may not have inadvertently spoiled the ending to a Harry Potter book because I didn’t understand how someone could be there at midnight and then not have finished the book by the next day. I kept telling myself Grave Mercy was too long and that I’d eventually get to it when I had time. It’s not even the length of the 6th Harry Potter book. It’s more likely a little longer than the third one. Why was I letting length get to me? I then of course read this like I would Harry Potter –practically in one setting.
Ismae has been physically and verbally abused for her whole life. It was known since before she was born that her father was the god of death. Her mother tried to poison herself and her baby in effort to get rid of Ismae, but it didn’t work. Instead, Ismae was born with a giant red scar that goes a long her whole back. She is not only brought up by her father’s brutality, but she is also taught to believe that she is nothing. She thinks she should be ashamed of how she looks and knows in the opening chapters that her father must have lied to the man she is being forced to marry.
Soon, it becomes clear her father did lie. Her new husband is abashed at how Ismae looks, and like her father, proceeds to beat her. Thankfully, Ismae is helped by the hedge priest who married her and makes her way to the convent of St. Mortain. Once there, Ismae learns that being a child of Death has its strong points. She learns she is immune to poison and she learns that she is so much more than nothing. She decides to stay on and train with the other nuns there.
The convent sort of acts as a Hogwarts for learning about sabotage and assassination. Ismae learns a lot in her years there: she learns to fight, to defend herself, how to use poisons, how to attract men, how to blend in, how to sense who needs to die, and how to believe in herself. And just when I think the story can’t get any cooler, Ismae is sent on a mission to court, where she must pretend to be the mistress of Gavriel Duval, someone the convent is suspicious of possibly plotting against the duchess they have sworn to protect.
This book is loaded with fight scenes, carriage chases, spying, court intrigue, politics, feminism, romance, magic, and death! It also deals with some serious things too like grief, abuse, rape, and self-doubt. The toughest thing Ismae is faced with is figuring out things out for herself. She’s always had a terrible father to decide her life for her. And then the convent and Death tell her everything she has to do. When she’s out on her own for such an extended mission, she’s given advice from all of the board. She finally has to decide for herself what is right, who really deserves to die, and what it is exactly she is fighting so hard for.
I loved how hard it was for her to fall in love. Can you blame her? All the men she has ever seen have been brutal and awful. I also love how strong she becomes. She goes from a crying, (practically destroyed) helpless wife/daughter to one kick-butt assassin. And somehow through it all, she still manages to have a soul and care for people. I also loved Duval! I love all the times he wanted to trust Ismae, but didn’t. And I loved how they worked as a team to protect the duchess. I loved the duchess and all of the awful happenings at court. I even loved Duval’s awful family and how they all played into everything.
The spying and the action truly made this book stand out as one epic, YA fantasy novel. I kept hoping for more scenes where Ismae got to show her toughness, instead of hide it. She pretty much had to do a lot of womanly pretending (aka: fighting on the down low while pretending to be a stupid, vapid country mistress), and I wish she could have been more outspoken about it (though it does happen eventually –I’m not spoiling anything, I promise). I also loved the pinch of supernatural that is involved with Ismae’s unique and deadly abilities. I also found the religion and gods and saints of this story fascinating; it’s such an interesting take on religion.
The only thing that kind of bothers me about this book is the timing. A lot of stuff was timed too well. Certain characters just happened to be places a little too often for me. One coincidence is fine. But, several…not so much. Also, Ismae was only at the convent for four years before she was sent out on this epic mission. And I know she has some seriously awesome abilities, but even so, I don’t think you can go from starving, broken, and hopeless to ruthless, talented, strong, and brave quite so quickly. Maybe those nuns had more magic than we know?
Regardless of the timing issues, this is not a book to miss. And certainly it shouldn’t be a book to push aside for when there is more time. It is addicting. And really, it was one of my favorite YA fantasy stories of the year. I give it a 9/10.